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Legislature’s 2015 output hits 66-year low

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers passed 191 bills during the just-completed legislative session – the lowest tally for a 60-day session since 1949.

Overall, the number of bills approved and sent to Gov. Susana Martinez represented less than two-thirds of the final output from the 2013 legislative session, when 298 bills were passed. It was down even more from previous years.

What was behind the downturn?

The most obvious factor was the Legislature’s partisan divide, as Republicans had a majority in the House for the first time in 60 years after picking up several seats in last year’s general election. Democrats still control the Senate.

“I sort of expected there to be some partisan gridlock,” House Majority Whip Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, told the Journal. “But I would have hoped that we could have had a little more negotiation and dialogue.”

While a number of high-profile bills stalled after being approved in the chamber where they originated, some lawmakers also cited more subtle reasons.

“There was a certain self-restraint we saw exercised this session based on the assumption the other chamber would not pass the legislation,” said Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces.

For instance, he and other Senate Democrats acknowledged they backed off bills aiming to increase the state’s $7.50 per hour minimum wage due to concern they would be amended – or “hijacked” – in the GOP-controlled House to include right-to-work provisions dealing with union fees that were opposed by most Democrats.

Meanwhile, Cervantes also said he didn’t think either the Governor’s Office or legislators had fully articulated agendas before the session began.

The number of bills approved by New Mexico lawmakers has fluctuated over the years, but has reached as high as 523 bills in the 2003 legislative session, according to the Legislative Council Service. That was the first year then-Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, was in office. Both chambers of the Legislature were under Democratic control at the time.

“At that time, what you had was the Democrats ruled the day and there was nothing stopping the flow of legislation,” longtime New Mexico political analyst Brian Sanderoff said Thursday.

During this year’s 60-day session that ended March 21, he said leadership in the House and Senate appeared to be frequently suspicious of one another.

“We knew there was the potential for the dynamics to be different, and sure enough they were,” Sanderoff told the Journal. “I’m not shocked that this happened.” He also pointed out that a lion’s share of bills approved by the Legislature typically don’t get passed until the session’s final days and hours.

A lengthy House debate on the session’s final morning on a $264 million public works package that ended up dying and a mini-filibuster by Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, on a House-approved bundle of tax breaks likely prevented more bills from being passed, Sanderoff said. In addition, the House actually adjourned at 11:53 a.m. – seven minutes before the usual noon adjournment.

This year’s final bill count includes 89 House bills and 102 Senate bills. That’s in addition to dozens of non-binding memorials, two authorized government property transfers and a new 22-year gambling agreement between the state and Indian tribes. Lawmakers did not approve any proposed constitutional amendments during this year’s session.

In all, there were 1,365 bills introduced this year, meaning only about 14 percent of the bills introduced were approved and sent to Martinez’s desk. In addition to the public works package, other high-profile legislation that died included a right-to-work bill, education initiatives backed by the governor, a proposed “cooling-off” period on legislators-turned-lobbyists and restrictions on late-term abortion pushed by the state’s Roman Catholic bishops.

The governor has until April 10 to act on legislation sent to her desk during the session’s final days.a01_jd_27mar_session-box